Biking Through Mexico
The Best Way to Meet the Country’s Welcoming People
My husband and I biked 1,894 miles from San Antonio, Texas to San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. To fly home, we gave our bikes away and took a bus back to Mexico City. As the landscape flew by, I realized how
much I missed the biking lifestyle. On the bus I felt no attachment to any of the sights that passed by outside my window. Towns, cities, forests, mountains, uphill, downhill—they all seemed the same. On the other hand, while biking, we
lived every place and every moment fully.
Biking made it possible to discover the land in between the popular cities and tourist sites. We biked through the dusty, flat desert, barren except for sagebrush and cactus. We passed through towns that were nothing more
than four houses and a herd of cows. We biked through farmlands, forests, past Popocatepetl, a classically conical, smoking volcano, and up and down some huge mountain ranges. We started out having to wear hats and sweaters in the north to keep
warm in the mornings and evenings. By the end in Oaxaca and Chiapas, we were on the road at sunrise so we could get our biking done before the hot part of the day. Biking gave a very full sense of what Mexico is like.
Whether we were simply buying groceries or asking directions, the uniqueness of traveling across Mexico by bike made it easy to strike up conversations with the locals. I often felt that our bike bags attracted more attention
than we did. The Mexicans invariably asked us where we were going, where we were coming from, what was in our bags, and why we were biking. Twice we found ourselves in a bind and needed to hitchhike. We found rides easily, throwing our bikes
in the back of pickup trucks. The Mexicans we met invariably reacted with kindness and surprise when they learned that we were biking across their country.
While biking, we either camped or stayed in hotels. It was very rare to find a campsite in Mexico, so camping for us meant free camping, with or without permission. One family we asked was overwhelmingly hospitable—offering
us mole for dinner and nopale (cactus) soup for breakfast, as well as insisting that we sleep inside, as they thought our tent looked inadequate. Another time, in a forest, we saw a man cutting down branches of wood for fuel. We asked him if
it was possible to camp in the forest. He told us that the forest was the property of the entire village, that we were welcome to camp, and that nothing would happen to us. Sometimes, there was no one around to ask, so we camped along the side
of the road. We looked for places where it was flat enough to pitch a tent, surrounded by bushes or trees, and as far as possible from the road while still being outside the fence line. It took a few tries to grow accustomed to camping without
permission, but in fact no one ever bothered us. We also slept in hotels when we wanted to shower or to watch some Mexican soap operas or when there were so many houses around that it was impossible to camp. The prices ranged from $6 to $30 for
two people and averaged around $16. However, some towns simply did not have a hotel, and bringing a tent gave us more flexibility.
Finally, I want to pass on a bit of advice for anyone considering a bike trip in Mexico. The most helpful resource for our trip was the Mexico Tourist Road Atlas published by Guia Roji (www.guiaroji.com.mx).
The atlas has detailed maps of the entire country, close-ups of many cities, and includes major highways and even the tiniest dirt roads. However, don´t rely on the atlas exclusively because roads are not always well marked and signs are
sporadic. We passed a town that literally consisted of two houses and they had a sign, but we cycled through other towns with 20,000 people that did not have signs. Using the atlas and asking locals is the best way to find your way. (Ask several
people the same question to verify the information is correct!) It is absolutely necessary to travel in the dry season. Rain over several days makes drying out your belongings nearly impossible. Roughly speaking, the dry season in Mexico lasts
from October to May. It was colder in Mexico than we expected. While researching the trip, we focused on the high temperatures (around 70º F), but as a cyclist the low temperatures (around 40º F) are more important. I wore my fleece,
wool sweater, and windbreaker on many occasions. I would recommend a warm hat and gloves, as well as a sturdy three-season sleeping bad, if planning to bike in northern Mexico during the winter months. There is no way that a touring bike or even
a road bike can survive the roads in Mexico. For this reason, I would bring a sturdy but not too expensive mountain bike. The terrain is going to wear down the bike.
Biking across Mexico was a wonderful, low-impact way to travel. We loved that our muscles, rather than fossil fuels, powered our way across the country. We also loved the freedom a bike trip gave us to stop wherever we wanted
and to reach far-flung locations. Finally, biking made it easy to soak up Mexico’s beauty and to meet Mexico’s warm and welcoming people.